On Being Shaped by Racism

If you are an Asian in America or Europe, chances are you will experience racism of some form or another — whether you emigrate or stay at home. You will be “different” wherever you are. This year we have been seeing a resurgence of race hatred in the wake of Trump and Brexit: bigotry is being permitted and even empowered, and its virulence is being fuelled by immigration and economic insecurity, among other things. Things are going to be bad for a while. I decided to gather my thoughts and memories of some of the racism I have encountered into two essays. The first is a simple account of what I have experienced and what it felt like; the second is a reflection on how not to become embittered by racism and even to gain strength from it. 

Whether I like it or not, I have been shaped by my encounters with racists. In this essay, I’m going to be writing down for the first time an account of some of my experiences with racism, of which I have had more than most people I know. The essay was stirred up by a video I saw this week of a young black woman being jostled and abused at a Donald Trump rally; watching the rage-contorted faces of the men shoving her and shouting at her I remembered that I have known the same faces and shouts in my own life. Earlier this year, watching Tom Hardy’s Mad Max being chased down tunnels by a mob of albino skinheads, I  had a flashback of having experienced something very much like this twice in my life. I haven’t talked about this much; it must be a symptom of some kind of PTSD that I can calmly talk about it only now, and usually only when some event like a film or video triggers it. In the next few pages I’m going to set down some memories, thoughts, and feelings,hoping that they might be consoling to those of you who have experienced similar things, and instructive to those lucky enough to have been spared.
My ancestry is Chindian — Indian father, Chinese mother — and I was born in Malaysia, a country with a dominant Malay population. By birth already I am a minority, and a minority that would not have been accepted in both of my parents’ traditional ethnic groups. Their marriage was an act of courage in those days, and fortunate to have been protected by British colonial law — which served the ideal of equality but also the practical end of maintaining civil stability among the multiracial subjects of the empire. Only after we left Malaysia were Chinese and Indians put through an aggressive affirmative action program aimed to make ethnic Malays dominant in all areas of life. All those Chinese and Indians who could afford it sent their children abroad to study, knowing that if they stayed in Malaysia there would be no chance for them to succeed in school.

We were lucky, having moved to Taunton, Somerset, by the time that started. For four years, from age seven to eleven, I remember on the whole sunny, friendly days — but then we moved to the industrial Midlands, the national center of coal, steel, and ceramics, and also of low wages and a growing unemployed underclass. This was in the 1970s, a period of general strikes that brought the country to its knees; the xenophobic, fascist National Front party was prominent, and supported by the growing population of uneducated young people with no hope. Even now the place has not recovered from the devastation of Thatcher’s government, which has left the area with three generations of unemployment.  Before I relate some specific experiences, I want to stress here that I have never met people who are warmer hearted, kinder, and gentler than the people of the Potteries, but this was only one layer. The other layers were perhaps only visible to the handful of brown teenagers when they tried to navigate the public spaces of this world of vanishing hope.

We lived in a small town that was part of a close cluster of industrial towns. In the 1970s there were tiny Asian communities in a few of the other towns — indicated by the existence of a couple of Pakistani groceries that sold rare essentials such as rice and spices — but in our town, on a busy Saturday afternoon, the only brown faces on the street would be ours. At our school there were two other Asian students, but they must have lived farther afield. When walking home from school, or just idling in town, it was a weekly occurrence to be called “Paki” (generic term of abuse for any south Asian) or “Chink,” often accompanied by an expletive and aggressive facial expression. It became fascinating to me how they decided whether we were Pakis or Chinks, but they were usually absolutely certain. “Go home” or “Get back where you came from” were exhortations we would regularly hear — these from young adults or adults. Kids would follow us yelling “Chink” or “Ching-chong Chinaman” or just “Paki,” not doing anything more than jeering — but there were times I would just hunker down and quicken my steps for fear of the abuse turning physical. It was not uncommon to be standing in a bookshop looking at a book, and then raising one’s eyes to see a face a few yards away glaring with loathing as the mouth spat out “fucking Paki.” My recollection is that these verbal assaults took place a few times every week and were felt as a daily reality.

This was a period before Political Correctness, and there was no training in “cultural sensitivity” or respect for “diversity.” At our school there was an uneducated man who maintained the swimming pool boiler. Joe was a sweetheart and loved to talk with me, and would say things like, “Gimme a smile! You darkies always have such white teeth.” I never felt anything he said to be racist: while the words he used might have come from systemic racism, the man himself was unfailingly kind and respectful to me, and there was never a jot of hatred in anything he said.

The Hare Krishnas had just made to to the West; on TV and in Middle England they were a symbol of ridiculous exoticism. Sometimes, without knowing what my actual name was, kids would follow me around chanting “Hare Krishna.” Of course, I got this a few times at school from kids who did know my name. One result was that it made me dislike my own name immensely and hate to be even remotely associated with Hindu devotional cults.

These regular tauntings would have been sufficient to make any sensitive person dread to venture out; there was no question of a harmonious relationship with our surroundings, and there was always fear of physical attack. The first assault I remember was when I was eleven, and my brothers and I, together with an English friend, went to play soccer a few blocks away from home at a public field adjacent to my brothers’ primary school. We were kicking around when, seemingly from out of nowhere, about eight older boys turned up, encircled us, started pushing us around, and then made us sit on the grass while they yelled at us, kicked our ball at us, and hit us. “What the fuck are you doing here? Fucking stay over your side of fucking town. This is our field, do you hear? Fucking Pakis. You come to our country and take all the fucking jobs. Go back where you fucking came from. We don’t fucking need you here…” And so on for about thirty minutes. We sat there frightened and crying. They made us get up and leave, and we trudged home in silence. I knew that what they were saying were things they had heard from other people, and we never encountered this particular group again — but after that we could never go out and just play. There was no movement of Asians resisting this kind of thing, and in those days no wider social movement standing strong against racism, so we didn’t really have the tools to think about this or to help us figure out what to do about it. No one talked about it at home or at school; there was never an invitation to talk about such things, and no developed vocabulary for doing so.

It always started with pushing and verbal abuse. About once every two months there would be an incident on the walk back from school, when a bigger boy or — more commonly — two or three boys would crowd me and start the abuse. On one occasion two boys started to hit me lightly and I flew into a rage, grabbing one by the collar and swinging him round and round, keeping him between me and his friend. I hurled him to the ground and started to kick him. Meanwhile, cars were going by. One car pulled up, and a moustached old man popped his head out of the window and told me sternly, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down, boy! I saw the whole thing, and you could easily handle both of them without doing that.” The two louts took this opportunity to escape. After this, I did not feel triumphant or pleased — just physically sick. I sat on the kerb and tried not to throw up; this is how sensitive people actually feel even after winning a fight.

When I was 13, my class went on a field trip to Chester Zoo. There was another school there at the same time. We were free to roam, but once out of sight of the teachers I was hounded by a group of crewcut thugs from the other school who called me every racial name they could think of and, brandishing empty bottles, started to chase me around the zoo until eventually I found my teachers again. This was my first Mad Max chase. Another one involved a crowd of drunk soccer fans at a motorway restaurant where I worked; they were determined to beat the little Paki up, and I hid in the toilets till I knew they were gone. Both these incidents I had successfully repressed until I was about 45; the sudden resurgence of these memories at this later age took me aback, because I had never stopped to reflect just how bad it had been. In those days, dread of the streets was normal, the imminence of physical assault was normal. Compared to similarly motivated assaults in the U.S. the level of violence was relatively mild because there were no guns involved, but the intensity of aggressive emotion was what shook a person more than physical violence: we saw for ourselves that we were intensely not wanted there. Of course, the physical expression of this hatred was only the most obvious face of it; there were countless more subtle expressions of racism every day, many of which we wouldn’t have even noticed because we were more focused on the more physical expressions.

All of this had a deep and pervasive effect on me. I became less social, and consequently read more, listened to music, and learned to love solitude. I have a permanent dislike of large crowds, loud groups of people, and abusive obscenities. When at 14 I overheard a pretty girl saying that she’d never go out with a Paki, it was another blow to any hopes I might have had for a normal social life. Altogether, my relation to communities after this upbringing has been an anxious one, and I have become content with staying at the periphery of community. Fundamentally I do not know how to trust a community and unselfconsciously inhabit one. If I were either a Paki or a Chink, I might not have developed this unease because there would be somewhere where I’d fit in — but being Chindian, born in Malaysia and brought up in England, there can be no place where I would simply be at home. Without the childhood experience of racism, I might never have become a reader and writer, and might never have discovered the delights of solitary activities. And I would not have studied martial arts without this special incentive. In addition, the permanent Alien status has brought with it a thoroughgoing skepticism about traditions and cultures, because I know how manufactured those things can be in the effort to establish groups against other groups.

After the Midlands I studied in Cambridge — more educated, more cosmopolitan, more tolerant, although often too more subtly racist — and then lived in Germany, where the hated minorities were Turks and Greeks, but Asians got some too. It was nothing as bad as in my teenage years though. In China I was treated very well, but was aware of the severe abuse of African students in some of the larger universities.

Occasionally something will happen that stirs up again the dread of racist violence. In India five years ago I tried to visit my great-grandfather’s temple in Trivandrum, the ultra-rich Padmanabhaswamy Temple (whose vaults hold over $24 billion of treasures). I had entered a few months before in the company of my venerable uncle, but now, going in by myself and without an elder as shield, I was stopped at the gate and told to show my ID. Non-Indians are not allowed in, but as an official “Person Of Indian Origin” my status was ambiguous, so I tried to reason with the guys and appealed to my ancestral connection to the temple. They would have none of it. To them, I was an apostate Indian, a traitor, and within a few minutes they were shouting at me and about to start pushing. When more men started arriving, I left — calmly, because I had seen this before. The body language and facial expressions were entirely familiar to me; these boorish Hindu nationalists were no different from the English louts on that soccer field.

For almost three decades now I have lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about as far removed from any of the nationalisms I have known, and a town that prides itself on its difference and its hospitality to difference. Even so…during the first Gulf War six young men cornered me near the railroad tracks at the center of town, started pushing me around, and accused me of looking like Saddam Hussein. They had been drinking, and I wasn’t scared because I knew I could outrun them — but the questions (“Where do you come from?” “England.” “Yeah right, you wish!”) and assertions (“You people don’t belong in the U.S.A.”) told the old story. I broke out of the circle and ran before things got bad. There have been occasions when my credit card and driver’s license received longer than usual scrutiny because of the suspicious name — from people who cannot be expected to know that no Islamic terrorist would go by the name Krishnan Venkatesh. On the other hand, in my years of long hair, after a particularly disheveling session of fencing at the gym, I have had my credit card refused at a gas station because I must have looked to the Hispanic clerk like a drunk Indian who could not possibly have a Mastercard; only when the white friend who was with me vouched for me was my card accepted. This has happened twice. And as in England, incidents of subtle racism are more numerous.

I realize from the episodes in Santa Fe that the minorities for whom I am mistaken get treated like this regularly, and my treatment was just a glimpse of what life is like for these groups of people: they are experiencing daily the same unease and fear that I experienced as a teenager. Women generally experience subtle and not so subtle abuse daily. I am fairly sure that in a Republican America all of this will get worse, and even if the Republicans lose the national elections a sufficiently large number of bigots now feel empowered to express their loathings. I already know their faces.







27 thoughts on “On Being Shaped by Racism

  1. Krishnan,

    What a heart wrenching as well as a heart rendering account of being bullied in your youth and more recently, and having the courage and fortitude to stand up like a man within reason and capability to maintain personal dignity and honour.

    Whatever racial discrimination and bullying and harassment I have faced in Australia in my student days pale into insignificance. I have the advantage of being quite tall (5 ft 11 inches) and quite big (110 kg at my prime). I was a rugby player for Victoria Institution. I grew up in Chow Kit, a ‘samseng’ (gangster) infested ‘red light’ district in KL. I think you know what I mean when I say that in a tough and poor neighbourhood you either grow up tough or you are dead.

    Australia is a changed environment now, and as most white Australians know, it is in and part of Asia, and also depends on Asia economically. Also in modern times, the White Australians see Chinese and Indians as ‘superior’ beings to themselves in many ways. The Asians basically own half of everything in Australia. And in the major 3 cities, the CBD is taking on an Asian mien. And then out in the suburbs, you have certain suburbs looking like you have stepped into Asia, because the white faces are a minority. You get the impression any place with no presence of Asians or Asian hustle and bustle of activity, is as poor as a church mouse.

    When the working class go to hospital or go to a doctor in the suburban shopping centres, inevitably the attending doctor would be a Chinese or an Indian. The Asians excel in schools and at universities. Some universities are between 60-80% Asian in student population. Business wise nothing moves without Asian clients of customers, whether Asian tourists or local Asians.

    Considering your qualification and esteemed career and experience, you should consider migrating to Australia. It is sort of English, without being English, like a British son having ran away from home.

    I hate to say it but I enjoyed your account of racist days despite your tale of trauma and assault on your sense of being and person. It is so lucid and clear that one is directly transplanted to the immediacy and virtual experience of the unfortunate encounters.

    Thank you for sharing.

    I only wish I could write as beautifully as you.

    By the way I bought the ‘Northern Lights’ for my 12 year old daughter Anekeaini. I also bought her ‘The Book Thief’. I also bought ‘Contested Will – who wrote Shakespeare’ an historical investigation written by James Shapiro.

    In the last 35 years I had very little time for literature even though I kept up reading as much as possible, because my work involved a different type of reading and analysis. So, a few days ago when I had to flick through Shakespeare on the faint dim memory of some passages learned by heart in younger student days, it proved a strenuous effort. Funny, I am sure that at some stage in my student life I could recite Julius Caesar off by heart.

    Still at old age, as is the customary Asian practice of renunciation, one’s attention is focused more on reading spiritual writing and practising meditation.

    Thanks and keep well.


  2. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Krishnan. Your experiences are enlightening, and they serve as a clear reminder that there are far too many people out there with closed minds. And they insulate themselves with like-minded people, subcultures and traditions which instill a false sense of righteousness, often resulting in aggressive behavior. This is a systemic problem. They are completely unaware of their shortcomings. But sometimes all it takes is one individual to stand up and express himself articulately to make a huge difference.

  3. A really powerful and important piece. I am convinced writing about experiences like this is a very important task, because it can help teach those who don’t understand just how devastating racism can be, whether thoughtless or intended. But I know also that writing about it requires a great deal of personal courage, because it requires us to admit our own vulnerabilities. Thank you for posting this. I will be sharing it.

      • You write beautifully! I recall our children going through this a lot growing up in Australia, more our son than our daughter. But after reading your article, I realise how much more harder it is growing up as a Chindian or as a child of mixed parentage. It is interesting to see that it is alive as I see it happening right here to the next generation! Hope your article makes it to The Chindian Diaries.

      • Thanks, Auntie Shantha. It seems to be much worse for teenage boys because of all the young male aggressiveness, but I wonder if girls get different aggression from other girls?

  4. Thank you so much Krishnan for sharing this! I resonate with your experiences Reading your words helps me recommit to shining the light (gently, steadily) on the dark places within and around me.

  5. A harrowing read. Thanks, Krishnan. Do consider migrating to the San Francisco bay area and you will likely no longer face these racist incidents as both Indians and Chinese play a significant role in the IT industry here. I myself am a Malaysian-born Chinese, and although I’ve lived 17 years in Ireland, I have not experienced the degree of racism that you had experienced in England. Sometimes I wonder which is worse – the personal racist incidents you experienced, or the institutional racism that works against non-Malays like us in UMNO-controlled Malaysia.

    • Thank you. I love the Bay Area. I think both the personal and institutionalized racisms are equally bad, but ultimately all racism stems from a human being’s thoughts about other human beings — and that is where the fight needs to be taken.

  6. Hi Krishnan, Thank you very much for sharing this article. I am able to resonate with your feeling of “not fitting in since birth”. I have experienced “subtle racism” since I arrived in Adelaide, SA though I haven’t got a clue how to express it nor have any vocabulary for it. The lessons learned in life here is I have sharpen my intuition so much so that I am able to read their mind. Hence before they open their mouth, I am so out of here ! Time to heal and remember forgiveness is because you deserve the peace not because their behaviour is ok bcos it is not ok.

  7. Dear Krishnan, I wanted to write to let you know how moved and grateful I am for your piece. I am a Malaysian and I teach critical race theory and postcolonial studies at Tulane University. My first book (under review right now) actually is a contemporary ethnographic study of racial violence in the UK (east London). But in all my readings and research I have not heard a Malaysian voice in this field. It was both strange and a shock recognition in many ways to read your essay. Thank you.

  8. More reading to do to Heal. Forgive n let go n move on. Remember forgiveness is bcos u deserve the peace. Sending blessings of love and light to u n take good care
    Sorry I dont know how to do the link thingy I just copy whole n paste
    Heal Your Life
    10 hrs ·
    3 Cheers for the Black Sheep
    By Cheryl Richardson
    Several years ago, while teaching The Writer’s Workshop on a cruise ship, our group experienced an important moment that highlighted a universal theme. A brave woman shared that the subject of her book was a departure from the more traditional life she grew up in. The thought of publishing her work for the world to see ignited the pain she felt as an outsider in her family—the unconventional one in a world of convention. Her honesty and vulnerability touched us all and gave me a chance to talk about what I see as the benefit of being the Black Sheep.
    In all my years of speaking and teaching, I’ve found that those who are most successful at living true and meaningful lives generally come from backgrounds where they don’t fit in. There’s a good chance you know what I mean. You may have felt like an outsider in your family, a flower in a garden of vegetables at work, or the one person who seemed to be dropped into the middle of school by alien beings. If you did (or do), you’re in good company. Most of us who are doing our best to live conscious and authentic lives feel that way.
    At one point during the workshop, I invited a surprise guest, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, to join us to talk about his writing process. No sooner was he seated in the chair, than he began to talk about his key to success: his desire to buck the system and follow a path traveled by few. He was adamant that had he operated within an established norm, he would not have written more than 35 books—books that are published in more than 45 countries today!
    Later in the week I invited Julie Barr, a talented comedian performing on the cruise, to talk about her creative process. Talk about out-of-the-box. Her success as a performer and comic artist was evident in her willingness to offer a straight, no-holds-barred conversation about what it takes to write and perform stand-up comedy. Boy, did we laugh!
    The courage, commitment, and personal strength required to navigate the rough patches that inevitably come with feeling like an outsider are important qualities to develop. These qualities make you stronger, more convicted, and better able to withstand the pressure when society tries to pull you back into compliance from your position of originality.
    I like to think of the black sheep experience as a polishing school—a training program that allows great thinkers and doers to develop what it takes to shine as they break new ground or conduct some kind of change-agent activity in the world.
    The very act of living an authentic life requires you to risk being unusual, different, or strange. It’s the opposite of trying to fit in. Whether you dress or live in a unique way, bend the rules with your own creative slant on life, or follow a curvaceous path that meanders around social norms, the reward lies in knowing that you’re living a real and honest life. Is there anything better?
    If you feel like a black sheep, welcome to the club. Take this week’s challenge and get a little more comfortable in that beautiful skin of yours.
    Take Action Challenge
    Look for one way, each day this week, to practice finding inner peace in the outer lane of life. Dress a little different, use words that are more reflective of your true nature, or offer an opinion that tilts the boat a bit. Be willing to be you. It’s the best (and only) way to cruise through life.
    Heal Your Life’s photo.

    • Thank you, and I really appreciate your kindness and concern. Actually I’ve healed and am ok. I just wanted to share with people who might not know what it is like. Even friends who have known me for 20 years have no idea about all of this, because I left it behind already. The Trump videos were what sparked this. I’m thinking f writing the next essay on how exactly I let go.

  9. U r most welcome. Glad to hear you have healed. Good that you will be writing on how you let go I hope it helps humanity at large. I can feel very deeply since I arrive in Adelaide, dont know why just my journey in life……..we are all walking each other home I guess. Take good care….

  10. Hello Krishnan,

    Thank you very much for sharing your stories – you have been most generous and courageous and I am sure many will be helped by being able to understand their own experiences through reading about yours.

    ‘Chindian’ – please allow me to rail against that seemingly innocent coinage, since I grew up biracial (Indian & Chinese) in the 1950s/60s in Malaya/Malaysia with that word thrown at me alongside other slurs such as ‘chap-cheong’ (mixed-something in Cantonese), ‘champur’ etc.
    Add that to having a Christian (English, actually) name and a quadri-cultural experience – Indian&Chinese&Malayan&Anglophilic, my early years in Malaysia were… let’s say, interesting.

    However, Malaysians still do not freely coin potentially derogatory-sounding racial descriptives such Chilay (Chinese-Malay) or Malindian or Englay. I guess those versions of biracial Malaysians get the opportunity to expediently morph into Malays. Former PM Dr. M included.

    My friends ask me not to take offense at being called a Chindian because that word is cute and is apparently acceptable in Malaysian parlance. I respond to them however, that being offended by being called a Chindian is entirely my prerogative.

    Nowadays I am referred to as an ‘East’ Indian here in Canada, to distinguish me from the Indian (aboriginal), who should not be called Indian anyways. Go figure! And I have been asked a couple of times whether it’s my taxi parked outside since a lot of ‘East Indians’ drive taxis in this country and it is hard to tell if you’re not one of ‘them’. But all that is tame stuff compared to your experiences. Nobody has chased me down the road with a chainsaw so far.

    Fortunately we now have PM Justin Trudeau and a rainbow collection of leaders in the Federal cabinet, including a turbaned and bearded Sikh gentleman as the Defence Minister, and so it is hopeful here in diverse Canada, having recently dispatched the divisive ex-PM Harper and his Conservative lot. And, we are hoping to welcome 300,000 unfortunate displaced persons from other lands in the coming years. Ahem!

    Come visit British Columbia, if you haven’t already. Somewhat like in many parts of Australia (where they have ostensibly ‘overcome’ racism by sheer demographics and economics) you are less likely to experience overt racism in the bigger cities of Canada. The subtle, lingering, tweed & gender ceilings are also constantly being dismantled.

    I love your writing! Best wishes,
    Richard V

  11. HI Krishnan today i learnt a new term “casual racism” Take a look :-http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/14/racism-is-the-elephant-in-the-hospital-room-but-what-can-doctors-do

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